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Black History Month

History-makers of Southeast Louisiana

Yusef Komunyakaa

Photo from State Library of Louisiana: Photography Collection


James William Brown, Jr. was born in Bogalusa in 1947, but later took the name Komunyakaa in honor of his grandfather. He grew up poor in the Conservative rural South at the beginning of the civil rights movement. From an early age, Komunyakaa was an avid reader but at that time, the public library in Bogalusa did not admit African Americans. His mother bought him encyclopedias an a Bible. He was fascinated with James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, which he borrowed repeatedly from his church library. In 1969, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam as a war correspondent for The Southern Cross, the military newspaper. He earned a Bronze Star for his service.

After his military service, Komunyakaa attended college on the G.I. Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado. It was there that he began writing poetry in a creative writing class. He went on to complete master’s degrees at Colorado State University and the University of California, Irvine. While in grad school, he published two chapbooks, Dedications & Other Darkhorses (1977) and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979). His first book of poetry was published in 1984. Copacetic was a collection of autobiographical poems that drew from childhood experiences in Bogalusa and on deep-rooted traditions of jazz and blues in New Orleans. From 1985 to 1996, he taught English at Indiana University Bloomington.

He earned critical success with his collection of poems titled Dien Cai Dau in 1988, about his experiences in Vietnam. In 1994, he published Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.  He also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the 2007 Louisiana Writer Award for his enduring contribution to the poetry world. Komunyakaa is currently a professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.

Read more about this history maker:

His poetry published in The New Yorker.

Profile and poetry from Poetry Foundation.


The books listed below are available for you at Sims Memorial Library.